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Several minutes after arriving to study at a US university, I signed up for mixed soccer. Soon afterwards my team won our university's mixed soccer league. I had not known such a league existed, and we had barely played in it, but apparently we had turned up for matches more often than any other team.
So we went to New Haven to play the mixed soccer champions of Yale University. However, they weren't mixed at all. They were a team of 11 women. Just before kick-off they raised their shirts, exposing their bras, and yelled a feminist chant whose words I was unable to register.
Such scenes may soon be common in professional sport. Carrie Ford, the female jockey who finished fifth in last Saturday's Grand National, is part of a trend. Annika Sorenstam, the female golfer, has appeared on the men's tour, and two men's professional football clubs recently tried signing female players. Both were forbidden from doing so. However, Eleanor Sharpston QC, a barrister specialising in European Union law, who herself once rowed competitively in a men's boat, told me such a ban might not stand up in court. Mixed sport could be the future.
I found that mixed soccer at an East Coast university was like normal football plus some unwritten rules:
1. When a female team-mate scores a goal, just pat her on the back. Falling on top of her as if you were both playing for Argentina in the World Cup final could get you kicked out of the university, which would mean no more mixed soccer.
2. When marking a female opponent, remember that this is not normal soccer. That is, do not grab her shirt, waist or any other part of her, nor elbow her in the nose. All this, too, can get you kicked out of the university.
3. Always be circumspect. I remember once receiving the ball, turning, flailing my arms in the usual manner, and bulldozing through an opponent. While doing so I reflected that this opponent lacked the hard edges and height that one associates with the male body. Clearly the opponent was either a midget wearing padding, or a woman. I wasn't kicked out of the university, but it was probably a close thing.
Fifa, football's governing body, aims to avoid these issues. "There must be a clear separation between men's and women's football," ruled its executive committee in December, when banning the Mexican second-division club Celaya from signing the female international Maribel Dominguez. But why? "Custom," Fifa told me. "Custom has been that men and women compete in different competitions. And if you allow women to compete in the men's game, you would then have men applying for the same rights in women's competitions." You could have Ronaldo starring for Brazil in the next women's World Cup.
But the European Court of Justice might overturn such a ban on women, says Sharpston. "There is a strong trend within the European legislation to uphold equal treatment. What we're talking about is somebody making a living. The way I would argue it on behalf of the woman is to say, 'It's a job like any job', just as if the issue were being somebody who mends mobile phones." Why should capable women be barred from the greater riches of men's professional sport?
Sharpston admits the European court might decide against women. In two fairly recent cases of women applying for specific military jobs, the court has ruled both ways. However, the lawyer believes the best female athletes can perform adequately in professional men's competitions. In Sunday's London Marathon, Paula Radcliffe will probably outpace almost all the men. The 5ft 4in Sharpston adds: "When I was at Oxford, I rowed bow in the men's first eight of my college. I was allowed to compete in inter-collegiate events. But every time they went to an outside event, they had to drop me, and got knocked out in the first round, and they were not happy bunnies."
That game at Yale was the last of my mixed career. Soon after kick-off my knee snapped. I spent the match standing motionless beside my marker, the Yale centre-back, who resembled the young Greta Garbo.
We won 2-0. Post-match drinks are another field in which mixed soccer beats men's soccer. New Haven was the perfect venue. In 1993, when these events took place, the town consisted chiefly of crazy people with machine-guns driving around in stolen cars shooting each other. The only safe bar in town was called The Frog. It was almost inevitable that the Yale Garbo would walk in at some point. Suddenly she did. "Hullo!" I said. She looked at me blankly. She hadn't recognised me with my clothes on.
The joys of mixed sport now await professional athletes.
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